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4. These were our bedtime stories. Tales that haunted our parents and
made them laugh at the same time. We never understood them until we were
fully grown and they became our sole inheritance.
These words appear in “Caroline’s Wedding,” when Grace remembers her
father’s favorite jokes, and they emphasize the importance of storytelling
in passing on Haitian traditions. The jokes Grace remembers aren’t
technically stories, but they capture the hopes and fears of the Haitian
people as well as any stories would. The jokes are both lighthearted and
serious: their subject matter is so grave that it must be delivered with a
dose of humor. Talking about such things would be too difficult otherwise.
The specific joke Grace remembers is about God fearing Papa Doc Duvalier,
who would steal God’s throne if given a chance. Though the joke is meant to
be funny, it is a poignant reminder of the ruthlessness of Haitian politics
and the hatred the Haitian people have for their corrupt leaders. It is both
funny and depressing because, in a way, the sentiment is true. Grace’s
father could show his young daughters his great sorrow about his country
without frightening them because he treated it as a joke. In a country where
violence and poverty threaten to destroy everyone who doesn’t leave, such
storytelling and passing on of tradition, even outside of the country, is
necessary to keep its culture alive.
Though Grace didn’t understand her father’s jokes as a child, they
subtly shaped her understanding of her own Haitian culture. She grew up in a
household where her parents told stories about Haiti all the time, so she
accepted the country’s importance without thinking about it. Her knowledge
of Haitian politics originated in these stories, and as she grew older she
understood more and more. As a young immigrant growing up in America, Grace
might easily have lost all sense of connection to Haiti, but her parents’
stories kept that connection alive.